Margaret Pfeil

We have been mulling over “the good” around our Catholic Worker community in South Bend recently, tending to attach to that abstract notion memories of our flesh-and-blood friend, Mike Lawson. He was murdered just before Christmas. His body was discovered over two weeks later along with the bodies of three other men. They had been beaten nearly beyond recognition and dumped in a manhole near the abandoned building where they had been living, down by the railroad tracks.

 

The initial media reports portrayed Mike and his friends as “homeless metal-scrappers,” conjuring up images of all deemed expendable, whether human or otherwise. But around our house we remember Mike as a good man, someone who through his manner of living incarnated the good—that is, all deemed invaluable—not in the “priceless” sense of the Visa Card elegy to capitalism’s endless grasping after the eternal, but rather in the sense of the truly infinite, the unmistakable manifestation of God’s redemptive love at work drawing all of creation back to the fullness of the good in its Creator.

At his best, Mike reflected incarnate goodness, readily calling to mind a flesh-and-blood God who takes up the cross amid all that has been abandoned and radiates the irrepressible, uncreated light of resurrection love. “When did I see you hungry and feed you, naked and clothe you?” (Matt 25:37). Jesus’ parable of the final judgment distilled the measure of the good down to very concrete practices—the works of mercy. A compassionate human being, Mike wielded humor as a spiritual tool of mercy, often using his wry wit and disarming smile to bring consolation to a suffering friend or to assuage the fears of a wary newcomer still armed against the sucker punches that punctuate daily life on the streets and, over time, puncture trust.

“Where there is not love, put love, and you will find love,” John of the Cross discovered. Mike intuitively embraced this bit of wisdom, practicing Thérèse of Lisieux’s little way by thoughtfully committing his energies to the small, gritty actions upon which hospitality depends. When the pipes froze, Mike manned the hair dryer in a frigid bathroom, gently suggesting that perhaps we could invest in some space heaters. After one of South Bend’s legendary snowstorms, he was typically the first to take up the shovels, coaxing a few others to lend a hand. At such times he revealed a gift for making the good apparent and attractive to those around him, so that without any noticeably liminal moment having passed, there gradually emerged the joyful awareness that everybody in the house was working together for the common good, a state of affairs in which each and all could flourish.

Looking for the Good

Mike was the sort of guest who made Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s highest hopes for the Catholic Worker seem at times almost within reach. They aspired to foster “a new society in the shell of the old,” a place, Maurin said, where it would be “easier for people to be good.” More often than not, Mike looked for the good in other human beings, another trait he held in common with John of the Cross, who advised his community in “The Precautions” that focusing on the good is preferable to dwelling on the faults and foibles of other community members: “For should you desire to pay heed to things, many will seem wrong, even were you to live among angels….”

This disposition to notice the good, even in what some might deem expendable, like scrap metal, enabled Mike to remain attuned to others in need. On the streets, people remember him for sharing whatever he had and for trying to ensure that the most vulnerable found their way to safety. His noblest actions called to mind what Aquinas identified as humility, the subjection of oneself to God and, strengthened by that love, to other human beings.

But like all of us, Mike was a pilgrim on the journey. He found it easier to be an instrument of God’s love than to let God love him, though at some level he probably knew that full realization of the first flowed from the second. Mike evidently took to heart Jesus’ admonition that it is what emerges from within that defiles. Knowing the depth of his own darkness and the strength of his own demons, Mike strained to trust that God could be as merciful toward him as he endeavored to be toward others.

In summer 2005, Mike and some friends took to sleeping in an abandoned building, the place where Mike would eventually be murdered. Though it contained the remains of toxic chemicals, the men thought it to be a safe haven, a sheltered place of seductive freedom. They affectionately dubbed it “the fort” and groaned with feigned (I think) exasperation every time I called it the toxic waste dump. Later that summer, Mike awoke one night to find himself surrounded by flames and thick, dark smoke. Groping his way to a second-floor window, he jumped to safety. Stumbling to our house, he collapsed on the couch, gasping for air through lungs permanently scarred, he later learned, by the acrid fumes he had inhaled. After a time, he finally managed to whisper to me, “All I could think of was, ‘I don’t want to die like this, homeless and burned alive in an abandoned building.’”

Little by little thereafter, Mike’s assent to the goodness of life as God’s utterly gratuitous gift grew more vigorous. He was, we could tell, on the cusp of trusting that he was beloved by a merciful, forgiving God—the mark of true humility. “The Annunciation,” Henry Ossawa Tanner’s portrait of the ultimate “yes” to incarnate goodness, depicts a bewildered Mary seated on the edge of her bed amid disheveled linens, peering circumspectly at a glowing shaft of light across the room, her feet resting on a wrinkled rug. The good is the object of the heart’s truest desire, laying its claim through rhythms of life so ordinary as to almost escape notice. Ever so slowly, it trains its seeker in the discipline of attentive love.

Freedom and Renunciation

After the fire, Mike took hope in the love that he gradually let himself receive in the day-to-day events, managing to hold onto a job for a few months and live on his own. But humble trust proved fragile. Choosing the good springs from a heart free to give a full-throated and single-minded “yes” to God’s desire for one’s life, and that comes at a cost. The Carmelite poet Jessica Powers observed that a yes to the good often means a no to other things, apparently good in their own right and so all the more difficult to let go. The renunciation that always accompanies true freedom rose, she remembered, “up through my heart and lips/ spiked leaden ball rending as it arises/ leaving its blood and pain.” Working in an Irish pub, for all the whimsical companionship that Mike found there, was probably not a good idea for one given to drink, he later acknowledged, but he had sought an elusive solace for a time, hoping to soothe a scratchy throat.

Around dusk one evening last fall, Mike came asking for a candle, with no explanation given and none needed. I knew that he was going back to the toxic waste dump that night. “So as not to curse the darkness,” I said, as he took the previous Advent’s pink taper in his calloused hand, the one with the last knuckle of the index finger permanently bent at an oblique angle. With an impish grin of gratitude, he set off in the direction of “the fort.”

Flesh-and-blood goodness appears at just such oblique angles. At its crux, as on the cross of incarnate goodness, its hard-won habits show forth as clearly as the wounds that come with the assent to goodness: loving practices of mercy, mindful nourishment of the good in each and in all, attentiveness to the grace of the ordinary, interior freedom before God and humble, trusting surrender to the redemptive power of infinite love.

Margaret Pfeil is assistant professor of moral theology at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.